Sunday, October 23, 2011

A Fiction Writer's Tool Wishlist

Current Reading: The Bible Repairman, by Tim Powers

Inspirational Quote: "At each increase of knowledge, as well as on the contrivance of every new tool, human labour becomes abridged." -- Charles Babbage

In order to be a writer, you really only need two things: something to write with and something to write on. But on a certain level, that's like saying all you need to be a brain surgeon is a patient and a sharp knife. It's a pretty high-level view of the situation.

I'm not saying the better your tools the better your results. Results all come down to skill and knowledge, and you can't get them from tools. I've often said that the test of the artist is his (or her) use of an imperfect tool.

But using a good tool can make getting better results easier.

When it comes to writing, the current tool of popular choice is a word processor (although there are those out there who still prefer freehand, and typewriters have not yet gone the way of the Dodo). Writing and editing with one are easy. But I find that as wonderful as they are for WYSIWYG presentation, and as terrific as they are for a broad range of documents, they really aren't designed with fiction production in mind.

I use Microsoft Word in my day job, and I create some pretty nice technical documents. I can keep track of tables and figures and refer to different sections, documents and URLs. I can create indices and tables of contents and control the layout so that documents come out ready for binding.

However, when I sit down to wrestle with the Magnus Somnium, none of that helps.

For my fiction, I use Libre Office (it used to be Open Office before politics and economics tried to run on the same track in opposite directions). It's a like Word, but... well, it's like Word.

I'd like something better, please. Something that makes my work easier.

Here's my wish list for fiction writing software:

1. The production of words has to be its primary function. So it's a word processor foremost. Some of the usual features are things I don't need, I bet, like tables and lists (but that might be just me).

2. WPs are really good at breaking down text into sections and subsections with headings. I want to break down my manuscript into scenes, and then...
a) I want to be able to group them into chapters and/or acts, or books or some kind of higher structure.
b) I want to be able to move them around, change their order or placement in the manuscript.
c) I want to be able to mark them as unused, so that I still have the work, but it doesn't show up in the manuscript or word count.

3. It'd be nice to be able to track characters and settings, to ensure consistency whenever they're described and as they evolve (in scene 12, she's got a cut over her left eye. A day later, in scene 18, why is it over her right?). I've got NO idea how you'd pull this feature off without magic.

4. I want to be able to create different versions of my manuscript. I work with software, and I'm familiar with CVS and other versioning systems. I'd like something like that for my work. It wouldn't be as complex as software versioning because we're usually dealing with only one author and wouldn't need the "check out/check in" operations. You load up your current version, make some changes and save it. The changes for this version are tracked. When you've finished your draft, you give it a "draft number," and all the changes are locked in. All subsequent changes are made in reference to that draft number. This way, if I decide I like last Thursday's version better than today's, I can just jump back to Thursday's version and work from there. At the moment, I accomplish this by tacking the date and a draft number onto the file name, but it makes it hard to find the draft I want to backtrack to.

To say nothing of littering my hard-drive with files.

5. Other stuff. I'm a user creating requirements for a software system. As such, I reserve the right to make ad-hoc demands, change my mind, define everything as a priority and insist that it be ready for testing by the end of the month. Oh, and I might arbitrarily slash the budget, reassign people to other projects, demand hourly updates, and schedule customer demos of unfinished features without your knowledge.

But that's okay, right?

(image from here)Link

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